Crime Does Not Pay: Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (United Artists 1956)


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Before Stanley Kubrick became Stanley Kubrick, he made a pair of low-budget crime dramas in the mid-50’s that are standouts in the film noir canon. The second of these, THE KILLING, is a perfect movie in every way imaginable, showing flashes of the director’s genius behind the camera, featuring just about the toughest cast you’re likely to find in a film noir, and the toughest dialog as well, courtesy of hard-boiled author Jim Thompson.

THE KILLING is done semi-documentary style (with narration by Art Gilmore), and follows the planning, execution, and aftermath of a two million dollar racetrack heist. Sterling Hayden plays the mastermind behind the bold robbery, a career criminal looking for one last score. He’s aided and abetted by a moneyman (Jay C. Flippen ), a track bartender (Joe Sawyer ), a teller (Elisha Cook Jr. ), and a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia ). He…

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Marlowe at the Movies Pt 3: THE LONG GOODBYE (United Artists 1973)


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Elliott Gould was a hot Hollywood commodity in the early 1970’s. The former Mr. Barbra Streisand broke through in the 1969 sex farce BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, earning an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. He was marketed as a counter-culture rebel, quickly appearing in MOVE, GETTING STRAIGHT, LITTLE MURDERS, and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. But his flame dimmed just as fast, and his erratic onset behavior and rumored drug abuse caused him to become unemployable. When Altman decided to make the neo-noir THE LONG GOODBYE, he insisted on casting Gould as Philip Marlowe. The film put Gould back on the map, and though critics of the era weren’t crazy about it, THE LONG GOODBYE stands up well as an artifact of its era and a loving homage to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero.

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Philip Marlowe is clearly an anachronism is 70’s LA, with his ever-present cigarette, cheap suit, beat-up ’48 Lincoln…

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Shattered Politics #31: The Godfather (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


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“I got something for your mother and Sonny and a tie for Freddy and Tom Hagen got the Reynolds Pen…” — Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather (1972)

It probably seems strange that when talking about The Godfather, a film that it is generally acknowledged as being one of the best and most influential of all time, I would start with an innocuous quote about getting Tom Hagen a pen.

(And it better have been a hell of a pen because, judging from the scene where Sollozzo stops him in the street, it looked like Tom was going all out as far as gifts were concerned…)

After all, The Godfather is a film that is full of memorable quotes.  “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”  “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  “It’s strictly business.”  “I believe in America….”  “That’s my family, Kay.  That’s not me.”

But I went with the quote about the Reynolds pen because, quite frankly, I find an excuse to repeat it every Christmas.  Every holiday season, whenever I hear friends or family talking about presents, I remind them that Tom Hagen is getting the Reynolds pen.  Doubt me?  Check out these tweets from the past!

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/411891527837687810  ]

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/280387983444697088 ]

That’s how much I love The Godfather.  I love it so much that I even find myself quoting the lines that don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.  I love the film so much that I once even wrote an entire post about who could have been cast in The Godfather if, for whatever reason, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, et al. had been unavailable.  And I know that I’m not alone in that love.

But all that love also makes The Godfather a difficult film to review.  What do you say about a film that everyone already knows is great?

Do you praise it by saying that Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, John Cazale, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Alex Rocco, and Talia Shire all gave excellent performances?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Do you talk about how well director Francis Ford Coppola told this operatic, sprawling story of crime, family, and politics?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Maybe you can talk about how beautiful Gordon Willis’s dark and shadowy cinematography looks, regardless of whether you’re seeing it in a theater or on TV.  Because it certainly does but everyone knows that.

Maybe you can mention the haunting beauty of Nina Rota’s score but again…

Well, you get the idea.

Now, if you somehow have never seen the film before, allow me to try to tell you what happens in The Godfather.  I say try because The Godfather is a true epic.  Because it’s also an intimate family drama and features such a dominating lead performance from Al Pacino, it’s sometimes to easy to forget just how much is actually going on in The Godfather.

The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone Family.  Patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) has done very well for himself in America, making himself into a rich and influential man.  Of course, Vito is also known as both Don Corleone and the Godfather and he’s made his fortune through less-than-legal means.  He may be rich and he may be influential but when his daughter gets married, the FBI shows up outside the reception and takes pictures of all the cars in the parking lot.  Vito Corleone knows judges and congressmen but none of them are willing to be seen in public with him.  Vito is the establishment that nobody wants to acknowledge and sometimes, this very powerful man wonders if there will ever be a “Governor Corleone” or a “Senator Corleone.”

Vito is the proud father of three children and the adopted father of one more.  His oldest son, and probable successor, is Sonny (James Caan).  Sonny, however, has a temper and absolutely no impulse control.  While his wife is bragging about him to the other women at the wedding, Sonny is upstairs screwing a bridesmaid.  When the enemies of the Corleone Family declare war, Sonny declares war back and forgets the first rule of organized crime: “It’s not personal.  It’s strictly business.”

After Sonny, there’s Fredo (John Cazale).  Poor, pathetic Fredo.  In many ways, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Fredo.  He’s the one who ends up getting exiled to Vegas, where he lives under the protection of the crude Moe Greene (Alex Rocco).  One of the film’s best moments is when a bejeweled Fredo shows up at a Vegas hotel with an entourage of prostitutes and other hangers-on.  In these scenes, Fred is trying so hard but when you take one look at his shifty eyes, it’s obvious that he’s still the same guy who we first saw stumbling around drunk at his sister’s wedding.

(And, of course, it’s impossible to watch Fredo in this film without thinking about both what will happen to the character in the Godfather, Part II and how John Cazale, who brought the character to such vibrant life, would die just 6 years later.)

As a female, daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is — for the first film, at least — excluded from the family business.  Instead, she marries Sonny’s friend Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo).  And, to put it gently, it’s not a match made in heaven.

And finally, there’s Michael (Al Pacino).  Michael is the son who, at the start of the film, declares that he wants nothing to do with the family business.  He’s the one who wants to break with family tradition by marrying Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), who is most definitely not Italian.  He’s the one who was decorated in World War II and who comes to his sister’s wedding still dressed in his uniform.  (In the second Godfather film, we learn that Vito thought Michael was foolish to join the army, which makes it all the more clear that, by wearing the uniform to the wedding, Michael is attempting to declare his own identity outside of the family.)  To paraphrase the third Godfather film, Michael is the one who says he wants to get out but who keeps getting dragged back in.

And finally, the adopted son is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).  Tom is the Don’s lawyer and one reason why Tom is one of my favorite characters is because, behind his usual stone-faced facade, Tom is actually very snarky.  He just hides it well.

Early on, we get a hint that Tom is more amused than he lets on when he has dinner with the crude Jack Woltz (John Marley), a film producer who doesn’t want to use Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in a movie  When Woltz shouts insults at him, Tom calmly finishes his dinner and thanks him for a lovely evening.  And he does it with just the hint of a little smirk and you can practically see him thinking, “Somebody’s going to wake up with a horse tomorrow….”

However, my favorite Tom Hagen moment comes when Kay, who is searching for Michael, drops by the family compound.  Tom greets her at the gate.  When Kay spots a car that’s riddled with bullet holes, she asks what happened.  Tom smiles and says, “Oh, that was an accident.  But luckily no one was hurt!”  Duvall delivers the line with just the right attitude of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”  How can you not kind of love Tom after that?

And, of course, the film is full of other memorable characters, all of whom are scheming and plotting.  There’s Clemenza (Richard S. Catellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), the two Corleone lieutenants who may or may not be plotting to betray the Don.  There’s fearsome Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), who spends an eternity practicing what he wants to say at Connie’s wedding and yet still manages to screw it up.  And, of course, there’s Sollozzo (Al Lettieri, playing a role originally offered to Franco Nero), the drug dealer who reacts angrily to Vito’s refusal to help him out.  Meanwhile, Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is busy beating up young punks and Al Neri (Richard Bright) is gunning people down in front of the courthouse.  And, of course, there’s poor, innocent, ill-fated Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)…

The Godfather is a great Italian-American epic, one that works as both a gangster film and a family drama.  Perhaps the genius of the Godfather trilogy is that the Corleone family serves as an ink blot in a cinematic rorschach test.  Audiences can look at them and see whatever they want.  If you want them and their crimes to serve as a metaphor for capitalism, you need only listen to Tom and Michael repeatedly state that it’s only business.  If you want to see them as heroic businessmen, just consider that their enemies essentially want to regulate the Corleones out of existence.  If you want the Corleones to serve as symbols of the patriarchy, you need only watch as the door to Michael’s office is shut in Kay’s face.  If you want to see the Corleones as heroes, you need only consider that they — and they alone — seem to operate with any sort of honorable criminal code.  (This, of course, would change over the course of the two sequels.)

And, if you’re trying to fit a review of The Godfather into a series about political films, you only have to consider that Vito is regularly spoken of as being a man who carries politicians around in his pocket.  We may not see any elected officials in the first Godfather film but their presence is felt.  Above all else, it’s Vito’s political influence that sets in motion all of the events that unfold over the course of the film.

The Godfather, of course, won the Oscar for best picture of 1972.  And while it’s rare that I openly agree with the Academy, I’m proud to say that this one time is a definite exception.

Shattered Politics #22: Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (dir by Stanley Kubrick)


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“Gentlemen!  You can’t fight here!  This is the war room!” — President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964)

The next time you hear someone bragging about how their favorite politician is an intellectual who always acts calmly and rationally, I would suggest that you remember the example of President Merkin Muffley, one of the many characters who populate the 1964 best picture nominee, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

As played by Peter Sellers, Merkin Muffley is the epitome of rational political action.  Speaking in a steady (if somewhat muffled) midwestern accent and always struggling to remain calm and dignified, Muffley keeps order in the War Room as the world edges closer and closer to apocalypse.

Just consider, for example, this scene where President Muffley calls the Russian leader (the nicely named Dimitri Kissoff) and explains that a little something silly has happened.

As Muffley explains in the above scene, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone crazy.  Convinced that the Russians have been sapping his precious bodily fluids, Gen. Ripper has ordered a nuclear strike on Russia.  Unfortunately, Russia has built a Doomsday Machine that, should Russia be bombed, will destroy the world.

While Muffley is at fist skeptical about a doomsday machine, his advisor, Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers), explains that the doomsday machine not only exists but that it’s actually a pretty good idea.  The wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove speaks in a German accent and appears to have lost control over the left side of his body.  At random moments, his left arm shoots up in a Nazi salute.  At other times, his hand tries to strangle him.  Making these surreal moments all the more memorable is the fact that nobody in the War Room seems to notice or question them.

And, while it’s always tempting to dismiss a character like Dr. Strangelove as being an over-the-top caricature, the fact of the matter is that, following the end of World War II, several Nazi scientists ended up working for the U.S. government.  In many ways, the U.S. space program was the creation of a bunch of real-life Dr. Strangeloves.

Of course, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove aren’t the only roles played by Peter Sellers in this film.  Sellers also plays Lionel Mandrake, a British officer who — as the result of an office exchange program — happens to be at Burpelson Air Force Base at the same time that Gen. Ripper orders the attack on Russia.

As famous as his Sellers’s performances as Dr. Strangelove and President Muffley may be, I actually think Mandrake is his best performance in the film.  In many ways, Mandrake is the audience’s surrogate.  He’s the one who gets to hear Ripper’s rambling explanation for why he launched an attack on Russia.  He’s the one who has to try to convince the hilariously unhelpful Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) to help him find a quarter so he can call the Pentagon.

(“You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company,” Guano says, before shooting open a Coke machine to get change.)

Sellers plays Mandrake as a parody of the traditional, stiff upper lip British army officer.  Not only does that allow some great humor as Mandrake keeps a calm demeanor while listening to Ripper’s increasingly crazed monologue but it also allows Mandrake to be the only sane man in the movie.

(Of course, the whole point of Dr. Strangelove is that the world’s become so insane that one sane man can not make a difference. )

Sellers earned a best actor nomination for playing three different roles and he deserved it but, for me, the two best performances in the film come from Slim Pickens and George C. Scott.

Pickens, of course, is the bomber pilot who ends up riding an atomic bomb like a bull in a rodeo.  As a character, Maj. Kong may be a bit too much of a spot-on stereotype but Pickens brings such sincerity to the role that it doesn’t matter.  Oddly enough, you feel almost happy for him when he rides that bomb to his death.  You know that’s exactly how he would have wanted to go out.

And then there’s George C. Scott, playing the role of Gen. Buck Turgidson.  From the safety of the War Room, Turgidson looks forward to nuclear war and worries when President Muffley invites the Russian ambassador to join them.  (“But he’ll see the big board!” Turgidson exclaims.)  Turgidson is both hilariously stupid and hilariously confident.  Perhaps my favorite Turgidson moment comes when he trips, falls, and stands back up without once losing his paranoid train of thought.

(Though he doesn’t have a big role, James Earl Jones makes his film debut in Dr. Strangelove.  The way he delivers the line “What about Major Kong?” makes me laugh every time.)

50 years after it was first released, Dr. Strangelove remains a comic masterpiece of a nightmare, a film that proves that political points are best made with satire and not sermons.

Netflix Noir #3: Crime of Passion (dir by Gerd Oswald)


CrimepassionPosterThe third Netflix Noir that I watched was 1957’s Crime of Passion.

In Crime of Passion, Barbara Stanwyck plays Kathy Ferguson, a San Francisco-based advice columnist.  She is approached by two homicide detectives who request her help tracking down a fugitive who they think might read her column.  Charlie (Royal Dano) is aggressive and outspoken.  When he first meets Kathy, he tells her, “You’re work should be raising a family and having dinner ready when your husband comes home from work.”  His far more passive partner is Detective Bill Doyle (Sterling Hayden).

Kathy writes a column that convinces the fugitive to turn herself in.  (The power of Kathy’s column is shown in an amusing montage where woman after woman is seen reading the column aloud.  Significantly, no men are seen to ever read anything that Kathy has written.)  The resulting fame leads to Kathy getting a job offer in New York.

However, before Kathy can leave, she gets a phone call from Bill.  He asks her out on a date and, one scene later, they’re getting married in the shabby office of a justice of the peace.  Kathy sacrifices her career to be a suburban housewife.

From the minute that Kathy first looks at the small and anonymous house and the boring neighborhood that she’ll be sharing with Bill, it’s obvious that things are not going to work out well.  Even though Kathy even tells Bill, “I hope all your socks have holes in them and I can sit for hours darning them,” the life of domestic servitude is not for her.

Every day, she stays home while Bill goes to work.  At night, she reluctantly plays hostess to the constant gatherings of Bill’s colleagues and their wives.  The women stay in one room while the man gather in another.  Kathy is quickly bored with the inane chattering of the other wives but whenever she tries to go into the other room, she finds herself treated like an unwanted intruder.

And worst of all is the fact that Bill has absolutely no ambition of his own.  He’s got his house.  He’s got his wife.  He’s got his friends.  And he doesn’t feel that he needs anything else.

Kathy takes it into her own hands to advance Bill’s career, first by having an affair with Bill’s boss (Raymond Burr) and finally by trying to find a spectacular crime that Bill can solve.  And, as the suburbs continue to drive her mad, Kathy is not above creating a few crimes on her own…

In many ways, Crime of Passion reminds of another 50s film, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life.  Both films use the conventions of melodrama to present a surprisingly subversive look at the horrors of suburban conformity.  Unfortunately, Crime of Passion never quite reaches the heights of Bigger Than Life, largely because Sterling Hayden gives such a dull performance as Bill that you never believe that Kathy would have married him in the first place.  (The film would have been far more impressive if Bill had started out as an apparently dynamic character whose dullness was then revealed after Kathy married him.)  However, Barbara Stanwyck is well-cast as Kathy and Raymond Burr plays up his character’s ambiguous morality.  If nothing else, Crime of Passion is one of those film to show anyone who is convinced that nothing subversive was produced in the 1950s.

44 Days Of Paranoia #22: Suddenly (dir by Lewis Allen)


We are halfway through the 44 Days of Paranoia!  In order to mark this special occasion, I’d like to feature one of the first true American conspiracy films, the 1954 film noir Suddenly.

Suddenly takes place in the small town of Suddenly, California.  (If only the town had been named Tranquility, so much trouble could have been avoided.)  On the day that President of the United States is scheduled to visit the town, a group of gangsters led by John Baron (Frank Sinatra) takes over the house of the Benson family.  It turns out that the Benson House overlooks the train station where the President will be arriving and Baron is planning on assassinated the President as soon as he steps off the train.  Baron sets up his rifle in the family dining room and, while he waits for his target to arrive, he also has to deal with a steadily growing number of hostages who do not want the President to be assassinated in Suddenly.

Clocking in at just 70 minutes and basically taking place on only one set, Suddenly is a grimly suspenseful film that is all the more effective because it deliberately keeps Baron’s motives obscure.  We know that someone has hired Baron to kill the President but we’re never quite sure who.  In the role of John Baron, Frank Sinatra gives one of his best performances and invests the character with subtle menace.

Frighteningly, Suddenly has apparently recently been remade by Uwe Boll.  That’s the type of news that will make any lover of classic film go, “Agck!”  However, the original Suddenly has entered into the public domain so, if you have 70 minutes to spare, please feel free to watch it below.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City

44 Days of Paranoia #3: Winter Kills (dir by William Richert)


MPW-39279Yesterday, I took a look at Executive Action, a 1973 docudrama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Today, I want to take a look at another film inspired by the Kennedys, the 1979 satire Winter Kills.

As the film opens, it’s been 16 years since a popular and dynamic President named Tim Kegan was assassinated in Philadelphia.  Despite constant rumors of conspiracy, the official story is that Kegan was killed by a lone gunman and that gunman was subsequently killed by another lone assassin.  The President’s half-brother, Nick (played by Jeff Bridges, who looks so impossibly young and handsome in this film), has disappointed his father (John Huston) by declining to follow his brother into politics.  Instead, he spends most of his time sailing on corporate oil tankers and dating fashion editor Yvette (Belinda Bauer).  This all changes when a dying man named Fletcher (and played, underneath a lot of bandages, by Joe Spinell) asks for a chance to speak to Nick.  Fletcher reveals that he was the 2nd gunman and that he was hired by to kill President Kegan.  Before dying, Fletcher tells Nick where he can find the rifle that was used to kill the President.

Following Fletcher’s directions, Nick finds both the rifle and proof that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy.  Determined to find out who was truly behind the conspiracy, Nick goes to see his father, the flamboyant tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) who, we discover, is only alive because he frequently gets blood transfusions from young women.  With Pa’s encouragement, Nick is sent on an increasingly bizarre odyssey into the darkest shadows of America, a world that is populated by militaristic businessmen, sinister gangsters, and an unemotional man named John Cerutti (Anthony Perkins) who very well may be the most powerful man in the world.

The martyred President might be named Tim Kegan, his accused assassin might be named Willie Abbott, and the man who shot Abbott might be named Joe Diamond (and might be played by Eli Wallach) but make no mistake about it — Winter Kills is a thinly disguised look at both the Kennedy assassination and the Kennedy family.  Based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Winter Kills takes all of the various Kennedy conspiracy theories and intentionally pushes them to their most ludicrous extremes.  The end result is a film that tries (and occasionally manages) to be both absurd and sincere, a portrait of a world where paranoia is the only logical reaction.

As I discovered from listening to director William Richert’s commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, Winter Kills had a long and complicated production history.  The film was produced by two marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered by the Mafia shortly after the film premiered while the other would later be sentenced to 40 years in prison on federal drug charges.  The production actually went bankrupt more than a few times, which led to Richert, Bridges, and Bauer making and releasing another film specifically so they could raise the money to finish Winter Kills.

When Winter Kills was finally released, it got a good deal of attention because of its spectacular cast.  Along with Bridges, Huston, Perkins, and Wallach, the film also features cameo appearances by Tomas Milian, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, and a host of other actors who will be familiar to those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM.  And yet, according to Richert, the film itself was barely released in to theaters, the implication being that Winter Kills was a film about conspiracies that fell victim to a conspiracy itself.

Given the film’s history and the subject matter, I was really hoping that Winter Kills would turn out to be a great movie.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work.  The film struggles to maintain a balance between suspense and satire and, as a result, the suspense is never convincing and the satire is ultimately so obvious that it ends up being more annoying than thought-provoking.  The cast may be impressive but they’re used in such a way that film ultimately feels like it’s just a collection of showy celebrity cameos as opposed to being an actual story.

That said, Winter Kills remains an interesting misfire.  Jeff Bridges is a likable and compelling lead (and he gives the film much-needed focus) and, playing a role that has a lot in common with his better known work in Chinatown, John Huston is a always watchable if not necessaily likable.  Best of all is Anthony Perkins, who plays a role that, in light of what we now know about the NSA, seems oddly prophetic.

Finally, best of all, Winter Kills remains an interesting time capsule.  If nothing else, it reminds us that mistrust and paranoia are not unique to this century.

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